Cougar woke slowly. First came the awareness of a light breeze cooling his skin. Next was the sense of something digging in to his back and limbs, most probably roots and twigs based on the earthy green smell he was beginning to recognize. Cougar shifted slightly, feeling what had to be leaves or blades of grass sticking to his skin.
Without opening his eyes, Cougar concentrated on trying to remember why he was sleeping outdoors. It could not have been another bar night with the team, there were no hangover symptoms that he could detect. Bar nights had stopped months ago anyways, the team and Aisha being less willing to risk lowering their guards in public as they closed in on Max's location.
The memories hit Cougar in a rush: New Jerusalem, Clay dead, Aisha flipped, the bomb. Jensen.
Cougar bolted upright, panting harshly, and looked around. He was in a glade, surrounded by thick bushes and trees. There was a small pool of water and what looked like his own clothes piled neatly next to it, his hat resting on top. Past the pool was an archway made of vines with a surface that seemed to ripple, preventing Cougar from seeing anything beyond it.
Cougar stood slowly, wondering what was going on and why he was alive. He had died, he remembered bleeding out on the bomb after rewiring it to buy Jensen more time. So why was he able to stand? Why did he have a pulse? Why was he denied the peace he had longed for at the end?
Cougar searched the glade and found no exits apart from the archway. There were no signs of him being monitored and no way past the bushes or trees. It was as he was brushing stray leaves from his body that he finally looked down at his naked form and saw the marks. Two stains on his skin where his bullet wounds had been; deep red in colour, like burns that were beginning to heal. With the aid of the pool's reflective surface, Cougar found more marks on his back: the exit wounds the bullets had left. It appeared that whatever happened to prevent Cougar from dying, it had at least left reminders of what had nearly killed him.
Cougar shook his head to dispel his thoughts. Now was not the time for introspection, he could figure things out later when he had more information and wasn't naked in the woods. Cougar pulled on his clothes, the khaki button-down work shirt and black slacks the team had stolen. The holes in the shirt had been neatly mended, though the left sleeve was still missing. There was a moment of hesitation before he put his hat on, the memory of donning his hat for what he thought would be the last time still clear in his mind.
Once dressed, Cougar approached the archway and its odd rippling barrier. He carefully extended one hand towards the barrier and encountered nothing. It seemed that the barrier existed simply to block line of sight. No doubt some sort of hologram or projection that Jensen would moan over if he got his hands on it.
Cougar closed his eyes and felt his fists clench as his heart squeezed painfully in his chest. Jensen would throw a fit when he found out Cougar was alive. Cougar could practically hear the tirade in the back of his head. As soon as he found a way out of wherever he was, he would contact Jensen and let his friend know that he had not died after all.
Cougar took a deep breath to steady himself, and walked through the archway. On the other side of it he found a hallway seemingly made of hedges and more archways. He crept up to another archways and tested the barrier, finding that something behind it was solid and unyielding. Cougar followed the hallway, testing archways as he went and finding that none of them would open for him.
Cougar peered around the hallway corner and froze when he saw the people sitting there. One seemed to be dressed like a Grim Reaper. Their face and bald head painted like a skull as they sat at a stone table wearing black robes with a hood that pooled around their neck and shoulders, playing cards. From a distance Cougar was unable to determine if they had a definite gender, unlike the woman sitting beside them. She wore a long, fitted dress that was a deep red color and she had black and white sugar skull makeup on her face. Her long black hair was bound in to a braid that fell over her left shoulder and was woven through with yellow dahlias. As Cougar was staring at them, the woman turned and spotted him, smiling brightly when she saw him.
"Look who's up and awake! I thought for sure you'd spend your first day back in your chamber." she said.
Cougar narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously. The other person huffed a laugh and stage whispered,
"He does not remember us. Really, you'd think we'd be harder to forget."
"You know as well as I do that he's supposed to forget us in between visits." the woman said, shuffling the cards in her hand.
"And now one of us gets to explain everything to him again. I wonder if he'll take it better this time." the other one mused.
"Play you for the privilege?" she suggested, grinning like a shark.
"You're on." the other one agreed.
As Cougar watched, they each quickly counted out three cards from their decks and placed them face down on the stone table. The fourth cards were turned face up as they were slapped down on the table, and the one dressed as a reaper hung their head as the woman laughed. She turned to face Cougar, her eyes bright with good humor.
"Looks like I get to walk you through it this time." she said, standing up.
She was much taller than Cougar had expected, towering over him by several feet when she came close to guide him down a short hall and on to a terrace that seemed to be made of woven vines and had a small wall fountain attached to the wall with several metal goblets sitting on the basin lip. She flicked one hand at the entrance of the terrace and another shimmering barrier rippled in to existence. Cougar found himself staring at it, wondering what sort of technology these people had that it obeyed commands as simple as a gesture.
"Privacy is usually best for these conversations. Not everyone takes them very well." she said, smiling sadly. "You are in a place known by many names and cultures. The name you are probably most familiar with is Purgatory. I am sorry, Carlos. You died in New Jerusalem."
Cougar gaped at her in shock. His hands shook as his heart sped up. He shook his head at her, only for her to nod back sadly.
"You bled out on the bomb after buying your friend Jensen enough time to get away. Pooch found him just a few minutes after the bomb blew. They got to shore just a few hours ago. They both have the chance to live long lives."
"No." Cougar argued, shaking his head again.
"Your name is Carlos Antonio Alvarez. You are 32 years old. You hate most kinds of beans, prefer ground pork over ground beef, but would choose steak over barbecue. You dislike the shape of your little toes and initially started keeping your hair long because it hid the shape of your ears, an insecurity that formed when your mother kept commenting that the cartilage in your outer ears wasn't as smooth as your sisters'. You prefer urban fantasy over sci-fi, and started watching more television in order to understand the references your best friend kept making."
Cougar shook his head and stepped back, his breathing speeding up as he wracked his brain for a way to explain how she knew so much about him.
"You have severe PTSD thanks to a traumatic event in Afghanistan where your old team was captured. They tortured everyone, killing most of them in the process, and at the end when it was just you and one other left you killed Private Terrence Sitwell out of mercy. You dug in to his body using your bare hands and scavenged his bones to make weapons. You slaughtered your way out of where you were held, stole a truck, and found a way to a Red Cross base where they contacted the Army to tell them where you were. A side effect of your trauma was that you ended up nearly non-verbal, both because of the way your brain processes trauma, and because you were so focused on not telling your torturers anything." Mercedes said, voice gentle but insistent.
"No. No, no, no." Cougarwhisperedhoarsely.
"Your team, the Losers, were the closest thing you had to family after your parents kicked you out when you were 16 and you spent 2 years homeless before joining the army. They kicked you out because you refused to attend conversion therapy after they caught you kissing a boy for the second time. You died without ever telling Jensen that you had been in love with him for nearly a decade."
Cougar felt dizzy. His vision swam and tears stung his eyes while his stomach roiled uneasily. He did not want to believe her, but he was running out of ways to deny what she was saying. There was no way for her to know about things he had never written down or spoken aloud, things he had not thought of in years. He had been so sure he would die, only to wake up somewhere else and become convinced that he had survived. Now he was being told that he had died and gone to Purgatory and he couldn't cope.
"There's a seat behind you." she said softly.
Cougar turned and watched, dumbfounded, as vines twisted themselves in to the shape of a chair. He sat down right where he stood, his legs giving out in shock at what he was seeing. The woman knelt down next to him and looked at Cougar with understanding in her eyes.
"This isn't something that can be denied. But you will have time to adjust. Time to heal, as well." she said, guiding him up to the chair before summoning a seat of her own. "There is a lot of information you will need before you head out to one of the human settlements. Do you have any questions you would like to begin with?"
Cougar blinked at the woman for a moment, trying to figure out where to start. She sat patiently while he thought about it, trying to process what was happening to him at the same time. Eventually he realized that he didn't even know what to call her, and figured that would be as good a beginning as anything.
"What is your name?"
"Mercedes. Well, for now it's Mercedes." she amended. At Cougar confused look, she elaborated. "I have been a Guide for a very, very long time. My original name is in a language that's no longer spoken. I have updated my name a few times over the millenia, and Mercedes is what I have chosen most recently."
"Guides?" Cougar asked, doing his best to listen attentively so that he could go over their conversation later.
"We call ourselves Guides. I believe a human word for us is 'Psychopomps'." Mercedes said, shifting to a more comfortable position in her chair. "We guide souls in the afterlife, answer their questions, and sometimes we interfere if things are going too far and might unbalance Purgatory. We were all human at one point or another. We chose to become Guides in order to help others, or because the option was presented to us and an eternal rest did not interest us. Some of us have been around longer than others. Most of us have accidentally ended up with places in mythologies or religions."
"Such as?" Cougar prompted, his curiosity piqued.
"The other Guide, Jamie, they ended up the Grim Reaper. There's another one by the name of Morrigan. She's stationed in another instance of Purgatory, we try not to have more than 100,000 souls in a single instance of Purgatory so there's quite a few of them. Morri is actually partnered with Xibalba, but it's mostly to keep an eye on him. We used to all work solo and just trade shifts with someone who was free if we needed a break, but he went a bit rogue a few centuries back and really messed up some Mayan mythology and history. Opened a portal to the mortal realm, collected a bunch of sadistic 'Lords of Xibalba' and started demanding human sacrifices."
"Santa Muerte." Cougar whispered as he watched Mercedes, remembering pictures and stories from his grandparents, always followed closely by frowns from his parents.
"She seems to be based on me, yes." Mercedes admitting, smiling wryly. "Sometimes the souls that come here... something goes awry and they get back to the mortal world, bringing with them stories of the afterlife. There's no one denomination that has the afterlife completely accurate. There are bits and pieces from many cultures in here. Purgatory itself is affected to a certain extent by the people who pass through it. Even just cosmetically, since everyone has different interpretations of what this place should look like. I look different to almost every person who meets me. Their way of seeing me is influenced by their knowledge of the culture I came from, their knowledge of the present day culture of that area, and their own opinions of it."
Cougar found himself intrigued despite himself, and wondered how Jensen would see Mercedes. Immediately after that thought, Cougar felt his throat tighten. Jensen was still alive, and Cougar found himself torn between missing his friend and wishing him a long, happy life.
A gentle tap against his ankle had Cougar opening eyes he wasn't aware he had closed. Mercedes smiled at him, a bit sad but mostly kind. Cougar nodded at her to continue.
"Purgatory works in very different ways from the world you grew up in. Everything here is streamlined in an effort to get souls to their proper destination. There are three official ways of getting out of here: Ascending to Heaven, Descending to Hell, and Reincarnating. Most souls reincarnate at least once. This is actually your twelfth trip through here."
Cougar felt his eyebrows raise in surprise. He braced his elbows on his knees so that he could lean forward and rub his face with his hands.
"It's a little out of the norm, sure. But everyone takes as much or as little time as they need to get where they're supposed to go." she explained. "This is why Purgatory exists. Heaven and Hell have very strict rules about who can or cannot enter, strict enough that most people won't get in on the first try. The overall tally of everything you do in life needs to reach a certain point in either direction for you to ascend or descend.
"For some people it's easier, those go to one kind of Purgatory. We call it Fast Lane. They get 3 years to either ascend or descend. People only go there if they're very close to doing one or the other. Where we are right now is Slow Lane. In Slow Lane you get about 15 years, or 5,480 days to be exact. After that point you can ascend at any time unless you reach 40 years, specifically 14,610 days, at which point you reincarnate and start over again.
"There is no perfect civilization on earth, no one's gotten it exactly right. So most people end up in Slow Lane, unlearning things their societies taught them. You can be an innately good person and still end up in Slow Lane because of circumstances outside of your control that caused you to do bad things. We get everyone from politicians to priests, soldiers and civilians, adults and children."
"Children?" Cougar asked sharply, looking up at her.
"Child soldiers. Sometimes spoiled brats or kids who were learning cruelty at the hands of their parents or guardians. In some cases they were reincarnations of people who were very close to descending. Most of the time children end up in Fast Lane, since they have less to unlearn and are given a lot of leniency. If you run in to a child here in Slow Lane though, it means they were starting to enjoy it, to take pride in hurting others." Mercedes licked her lips and shifted in her seat a little. "It may comfort you to know that the kids - the 25 kids who died in Bolivia - they all went to heaven."
Cougar exhaled slowly, he blinked stinging eyes and tilted his head so his hat would hide his face. It was good that the kids had gone on to a better place, and it was kind of Mercedes to let Cougar know.
"There was one boy in the group who had come from a misogynist household. He spent 103 days in Fast Lane unlearning a few things before passing through. Very quickly and easily, and while he was there he talked about your team. He was thankful for what your team had done, what they tried to do." Mercedes said.
Cougar inhaled shakily, bringing one hand up to wipe away the tears that had escaped.
"All of the kids knew that your team tried to help them. None of them blamed you, or were angry. They all knew there was nothing any of you could have done. They remember all of you as kind men who tried to do good things."
Cougar gave up on composure, burying his face in his hands and crying. He felt strong arms wrap around him, pulling him in close to a warm body offering comfort. Mercedes' large hand gently stroked Cougar's back as he wept for the lives that had ended too soon, for the little ones they had failed to protect, for everything he and his friends had gone through to avenge them. Mercedes murmured gentle comforts as Cougar finally let himself break down.
When Cougar had all but cried himself to exhaustion, Mercedes produced a handkerchief from her sleeve and backed off enough to let Cougar pull himself together. Once he had wiped away evidence of his breakdown, Cougar met Mercedes' eyes once more and was relieved to see only commiseration, rather than pity or false understanding. She offered him a goblet of water from the fountain, correctly guessing that Cougar would feel dehydrated and congested after what had happened. Then again, if she truly had been a Guide for as long as Mercedes said she had, she probably knew every possible permutation of grief and their effects on a person.
"Thank you." Cougar said quietly as he passed the empty goblet back to her. Mercedes immediately refilled it and placed it in Cougar's hand, smiling slightly.
"Anything I can do to help, Carlos. Within the rules, of course." she said.
"Rules?" Cougar asked, sipping at the cool water.
"No favoritism." Mercedes said, counting off her on her fingers. "No cruelty. No intervention with the journey of others beyond rearranging the map or halting the spread of misinformation about the afterlife."
Cougar frowned and tilted his head to the side.
"The map is what Jamie and I refer to our specific instance of Purgatory as." Mercedes explained. "There are different settlements all over the map and some have higher populations of people aiming to Ascend or Descend. Sometimes these settlements start attacking each other, and if it happens too often then we rearrange the map so these settlements can't find each other. Hopefully by the time they run in to each other again the populations will have changed enough that fights can be avoided."
"What stops people from attacking this area?" Cougar asked, gesturing behind him to the building he had woken up in.
"The plants." Mercedes said, smiling mischievously. "Anyone coming here with the intention of waiting specifically to kill people coming out of here will be attacked by trees, bushes, and vines. They can be held for days or weeks to ensure that they have time to rethink their actions."
"Would they not starve to death or die of thirst before then?" Cougar asked shrewdly.
"The rules are different in Purgatory. Eating and drinking are not necessary, but if you go without for a very long time you will feel discomfort or pain." Mercedes explained. "The purpose of Purgatory is to help people move on to their eternal reward, so a lot of things were made irrelevant or curable that weren't in life."
"'Curable'?" Cougar asked.
"Aches, pains, old injuries that would slow people down. Blindness, deafness, muteness, or if a mental disorder would prevent someone from functioning then they will heal from it." Mercedes explained. "The older Guides said that in the beginning the afterlife had people instantly recover, or gain senses back, but it caused more problems than it solved because human minds need time to adjust. So now, depending on how much sleep and food they get, a person can go from crippling PTSD or suicidal depression, to coping healthily in just a few months, maybe a year or two. In the case of autistic people, things such as sensory overload and certain triggers that would cause them to shut down are dialed back so that they can still function and take care of themselves in the middle of what would otherwise be a meltdown. We can't take these things away completely, because they do affect who people are and how they develop, but we can help make everything more manageable.
"There are also no language barriers." Mercedes said, nodding when she saw the look of incredulity on Cougar's face. "If someone speaks, you'll understand it as long as it was loud enough for you to hear it. We wanted to avoid misunderstandings resulting in tension or fights."
Cougar nodded his head, impressed.
"Usually, to start off with, we'll give each person a way to find a settlement that will welcome them. Usually a place with people who had known them in life. From there people can settle old differences, gain closure, find people they can spend time with more easily and spread out. The closest one for you is a 3 day walk from here. Do you feel ready to make that journey?" Mercedes asked.
Cougar took a few minutes to think of more questions, but given everything he had already learned he wasn't sure the information would stay in his mind. He could use the journey to try and process what he had already been told. If he had more questions at a later date he could presumably ask someone at whatever settlement he ended up in. If Mercedes was being honest about keeping misinformation from spreading then he should be able to access reliable information when he was ready to learn more.
Cougar looked Mercedes in the eye and nodded. She smiled and plucked a dahlia from her hair.
"This will be your navigator." she said, handing him the large yellow bloom. "Think of your desired destination, in this case something like 'settlement' should be fine, and it'll glow when it's facing the right direction. It can function as a light source in the dark, and it's pretty indestructible. If you ever lose it, just reach inside a pocket for a new one. Or your hat."
"Thank you." Cougar said, cradling the flower carefully.
Mercedes stood, pointing to the empty goblet in Cougar's other hand before gesturing to the fountain. Cougar stood and placed the goblet on the edge of the basin and followed Mercedes when she turned away. She led Cougar back inside, waving to Jamie where he sat shuffling cards, and around a corner that led to the large stone archway that served as the building's exit.
"Good luck, Carlos." Mercedes said, drawing Cougar in for a hug. When they separated, Cougar tipped his hat in her direction and returned the smile she gave him before she went back inside.
He took a few steps away from the building, noting for the first time that it seemed to mostly be made of stones held together by vines or other plants. Cougar turned away from the building and, feeling a little ridiculous, held the dahlia out the way he had seen Jensen use his phone as a light source. Nothing happened as Cougar awkwardly moved it through the air in front of him for a few long minutes until he noticed it brightened slightly if he moved it to his right. Hoping that things would get clearer as he went, Cougar set off in to Purgatory.
Cougar spent his first three days in Purgatory walking in the direction his dahlia was pointing him to. He felt disappointed in himself for not making better time, he had certainly covered larger distances over worse terrain in the past. He had wasted precious hours on the first day fiddling with the stupid flower, trying to test its brightness in the shade and in the light, growing disheartened when the dahlia lost brightness more easily as the day wore on until he stopped for the night.
On the second day Cougar had been unable to muster the energy necessary to continue his journey until the day had been half over already. He had lain in a sheltered spot under a log for hours, wondering if there was any point in continuing when he wasn't even sure he was going in the right direction or why he needed to go in the first place. It was only when he tried using the dahlia for guidance again and truly concentrated on the idea of four walls and a bed that it had lit up like a beacon in one specific direction. Cougar had made good time on the third day, but he had still needed to stop and rest come nightfall.
On the fourth day Cougar found the settlement Mercedes had told him about. He walked towards it as quickly as he could, keeping his hands visible in case there were sentries posted on the high hedges walling the settlement off. Cougar was less than 60 meters from the settlement before he was spotted, a stranger near the outskirts calling out and waving to him. By the time Cougar arrived a small crowd had gathered. In the center, staring Cougar down, was an older woman with a pink sari and a mark across her neck similar to the marks Cougar had found on his chest and back.
"Wait right there for a moment, young man." she commanded.
Cougar stopped where he was, hands away from his body as he watched the crowd and was watched in return. Most of the people gathered looked fairly normal, though a few of them had marks visible on their faces, necks, and arms.
"I am Raashmi Ramamurthy, I represent the people of this peaceful settlement. Were you pointed in our direction?" the woman asked, drawing Cougar's attention back to her.
"Mercedes said to follow the dahlia." Cougar said.
The crowd relaxed minutely and the leader smiled at Cougar.
"What words did she give you to search with?" she asked.
"'Settlement'." Cougar said. "It barely worked though."
"What did you use in its place?" asked a rough voice from the back of the crowd.
"I just kept picturing four walls and a bed." Cougar admitted.
The assembled crowd relaxed further as a few people laughed, and most of them had gone from regarding him with suspicion to looking cautiously welcoming.
"We'll let you in, but you'll need to stay with someone until we can find a person to vouch for you." the leader said. She pointed towards a man not much older than Cougar. "You'll go with Hubert here and he'll keep an eye on you while we look for anyone in here that might know you."
"Understood." Cougar agreed, turning towards the man that the woman had pointed to.
As the crowd dispersed, Hubert stepped forward and extended a hand towards Cougar.
"Welcome to Purgatory, I'm Hubert Talbot." he said dryly as they shook hands, earning a grin from Cougar. "If you can give me your name and most common nicknames we can have someone ask around for you."
"Carlos Alvarez. Respond better to Cougar, though." Cougar said.
"Alright then, Cougar. Come on in and we'll get you some water and see if there's a shirt that has two sleeves for you." Hubert said, leading Cougar in to the settlement.
Most of the buildings inside the settlement seemed to be constructed of vines and stones. People inside the settlement went about on their own business, some seemed to be looking after animals or carrying water from the well in the center of the settlement. There were people hauling loads of vegetables or some plant that looked similar to wheat but wasn't.
Hubert led Cougar in to one of the buildings and pointed to a table with a few chairs. Cougar was more than a little relieved that they were simple wooden chairs rather than the vine creations the Guides had. Hubert brought over a pitcher of water and two small cups, setting them down before taking his own seat.
"From the way you carry yourself I'm guessing military, though you've probably been out for a bit." Hubert said.
"Army Ranger." Cougar admitted, not seeing a point in hiding.
"I almost went in to the rangers." Hubert said, running a hand through his short graying hair. "But decided I'd seen enough after serving in Vietnam that I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I opted to get discharged and try to put my life back together. This settlement mostly has civilians, so if you need to get away from the well-meaning attempts at sympathy feel free to pop in. There's a couple other vets here who drop by for cards every few days. And I've got a spare room, so those four walls and a bed you were after are a real possibility."
"Thank you." Cougar said.
"If you've got any questions don't be shy either. There's a lot to take in and not all of it is gonna stick in your brain on the first shot."
"One, so far." Cougar admitted. "What do people do in Purgatory?"
"Depends on what they're comfortable with." Hubert said, shrugging good naturedly. "Most people volunteer for sentry duty a few times a week, since it's pretty simple. Aside from that, well. This settlement is basically the cultivator's settlement. We farm, we look after animals, stuff like that. There's other settlements we have agreements with. We give cotton and hemp and flax and flowers to the crafter's settlement and they make fabrics. A lot of the food we produce goes out to the chef's settlement so it can be made in to stuff like small pies or meal bars, food that's easy to eat and stores well so we have a stock of it in case the map gets rearranged. If we happen along or while we're tilling soil it goes to the soldier's settlement since they have a blacksmith there. The soldiers often function as guards when we're delivering goods to each settlement, or they come up and train a few of us to be able to fend off attackers and protect our homes. Most of them are fresh off the battlefield and still see things in muted tones."
"Muted tones?" Cougar asked, confused.
"You got the speech about your personal perceptions affecting the way Purgatory looks to you, right?" Hubert asked, waiting for Cougar's nod to continue. "Well it can also be affected by how close you are to Ascending or Descending. Most people get here and see the world like it's overcast but won't rain. Colors aren't as bright as they could be and all that. If you're close to descending the colors become muddier and the sky cloudier, like someone de-saturated the world. The closer you are to ascending, the brighter and more vibrant everything is. It's a way for you to check on your own progress. Make sense?"
Cougar nodded, surreptitiously looking around to try and gauge how bright the world was. It wasn't muddy or dark, but the colors weren't the most vibrant either. Cougar supposed that if he fell to either of the extremes he would have ended up in Fast Lane, though that did not stop the small curl of disappointment in himself.
"In general the people in this settlement and our sister settlements, they're working towards ascension. There's a few who are aiming for reincarnation though." Hubert said. "Not something I understand, myself, but I've been here long enough to know it's not my place to judge as long as they're not hurting others."
"How long?" Cougar asked quietly.
"11,712 days so far." Hubert said, sipping at his water. He huffed a rough laugh, "I survived imprisonment, torture, and guerilla warfare only to get my ass hit by a car in 1979."
Cougar snorted softly and settled more comfortably in his chair.
"You up to talking about how you got here?" Hubert asked. When Cougar shook his head, Hubert shrugged lightly. "You'll say something if you feel like it'll help you. Word of advice, though? Sleep. I know dreams can keep a man awake for days on end back in the living world, but over here sleep is for healing. Everything from physical to mental to spiritual wounds heals faster if you just sleep. There's a guy here in town whose leg we had to reattach last week and he's already up and walking with barely a limp."
Cougar felt himself stare incredulously at Hubert.
"Yeah. That's why we like to encourage newcomers to spend a few days taking it easy. Eat a lot, sleep a lot, and when you feel up to it we'll see if there's somewhere in the shuffle of chores and shit that you feel comfortable. We'll look through the settlement to see if anyone knows you, but for now a little peace and quiet is for the best. Give you time to get your feet under you."
Cougar opened his mouth to thank Hubert, but was unable to speak past the lump in his throat. He settled for nodding, relieved when Hubert nodded in understanding.
"That spare room is just behind you. Doorway on the right side of the hallway between this room and the kitchen. Bathroom's directly across from it. Go get comfortable, I'll let you know if and when anything comes up." Hubert said.
Cougar tipped his hat to Hubert and got up, making his way down the hall. The simple wooden door on the right side of the hall opened to reveal a small room with a decent sized bed and plenty of light coming through the window. There were a few heavy pieces of furniture; a chest of drawers, a table with two stuffed chairs, and a night stand by the bed with another pitcher of water, an upside down metal cup, and a candle on it. Inside the drawers were linens for the bed, as well as a few plain sleeping shirts and pants in different sizes.
Cougar sat down on the bed, toeing off his boots as he looked around. The walls were solid enough to block most of the noise from outside, and the window was covered by a thin fabric that let air in while allowing Cougar privacy. The door had a simple lock, a way for Cougar to keep others out if he truly wished for privacy. Cougar settled himself on the bed to think about what had already happened that day, only to drift off within minutes of his head touching the pillow.
Cougar woke to a hand on his shoulder and a heaviness in his limbs that made him want to roll over and keep sleeping.
"You've been out for a day and a half, Cougar. You need to get some food and water in you." Hubert said, shaking Cougar gently.
Cougar rolled out of bed and stretched, wondering for a moment why his joints did not ache as much as he was used to before he remembered what Hubert said. He looked over at Hubert and saw that the man was smiling faintly.
"I was gonna wake you yesterday but I figured you needed a good, solid rest to start off with. Looks like it's done you some good. Let's get some grub in you and I'll catch you up on what's been going on."
Once they finished breakfast, Hubert sat back and took a deep breath.
"We sent out a rough sketch of you along with your name and nickname to our sister settlements by runner. We got a hit with the soldiers. Two of them recognized you as Cougar, said they knew you by reputation. Another one said he'd served with you for a few months and you spared him a drawn out, agonizing death by mercy killing him."
"Terrence Sitwell." Cougar whispered, feeling the blood drain from his face.
"Yup. Terrence said he was grateful for what you did that day, and called you an upstanding man with a conscience." Hubert said. "Terrence is busy with a self defense program over at the chef's settlement right now, but he'd like to meet you when it's over in a month or two. He's had over a decade to come to terms with what happened, but he knows it's all probably still a shock to you so he specified that the meeting should be at your discretion."
Cougar pressed a hand over his mouth, feeling his stomach roil with shock.
"You up for more or need a breather?" Hubert asked, concerned.
Cougar held up one finger to ask for some time and concentrated on calming himself. He did not have to meet anyone right then, it was an idea to be considered in future. Preferably far in the future, when he'd had time to come to terms with long dead friends thinking fondly of him after he killed them.
After a few minutes, Cougar gestured to Hubert to continue.
"We found a relative of yours." Hubert said. "Well, it would have been two relatives but your grandmother reincarnated last month. Your mother's still here though."
"... My mother's dead?" Cougar asked faintly.
"For about 4 years now." Hubert said, wincing. "Going off of the fact that you didn't know she was dead, I'm guessing you're the kid she's been guilting herself over for the last 2 years or so?"
"Maria Alvarez arrived in Purgatory pretty firmly bigoted against anyone who wasn't straight and Catholic. If the rumors are true she actually attacked Mercedes, screeching about heretics."
Cougar choked on air. That certainly sounded like his mother.
"She's made some good changes in the past 4 years. She's by no means perfect, but she's learning to recognize when she's being a shitty person and she actually wants to do better now. About 2 years back she started to really realize the impact that her actions had on her family, her children. Since then she's actively been correcting herself and her behavior and often stands up for others or reaches out to new people having their own struggles with bigotry." Hubert said. He licked his lips and shuffled in his seat nervously before continuing. "Maria splits her time between settlements. She works in the gardens here and helps out when the harvest comes in. She understands that you may not want to see her-"
"I don't!" Cougar said immediately. "I can't!"
"Okay." Hubert said. "No one's going to force you to see her. You're more than welcome to stay here with me. If you take the next eight days to rest up indoors as much as possible, I know Maria is scheduled to go with our next delivery of flax and hemp to the crafters settlement. She helps them get things organized and makes sure all the settlements get their fair share of anything that gets made. She'll be gone for a few weeks, so it'll be easier for you to try your hand at different duties and see what works for you. Sound good?"
Cougar nodded, refusing to meet Hubert's gaze.
"Alright." Hubert sighed. "Now that the heavy stuff's out of the way I'd like to show you this nifty little contraption called a kitchen sink. I hear it's a good place for guests who want to show appreciation by doing the dishes."
Cougar snorted and followed Hubert to the kitchen with a small smile on his face.
Cougar sat back in his perch at the top of the settlement's hedge wall. The surrounding area was still clear, and the only anticipated activity for that particular road was a caravan coming in from the chef's settlement due the next day.
Cougar placed a few more stitches in the shirt he was mending, glancing up to scan the road for changes every other stitch. He felt a moment of pride as how much his needle work had improves in the short months he had been there. Not something he would have thought to pursue when he was alive, but it was a vital skill in Purgatory that precious few people had any talent for.
Cougar smirked, remembering when someone first realized that he had talent needle and thread. An accident while gardening had led to Sonia Waincroft requiring 14 stitches the day after the settlement's doctor had Ascended. While people argued about what settlement to send to for help, Cougar had cleaned and stitched Sonia's leg and was preparing to bandage it when Raashmi had wandered in and commended his neat stitching. From there Cougar had been welcomed in to the local sewing circles and had taken to teaching the other sewers how to dress different wounds.
Cougar turned his attention back to the road, checking for anything out of place. He wondered if Terrence would be with tomorrow's caravan. With Hubert's help Cougar had warmed up to the idea of meeting Terrence, and had extended the invitation for him to drop by the next time he was scheduled to escort people to the settlement. It helped that Cougar and Terrence had begun corresponding, adding their letters to the satchels that runners took between settlements. With every mention Terrence made of how busy his schedule was, and every anecdote about his friends from the different settlements, it was easier for Cougar to remember that years had passed and Terrence had mostly moved on from what had happened to them in Afghanistan.
Cougar added a few more stitches to the shirt before tying off and cutting the thread. He put away the sewing supplies carefully and was reaching for a pair of socks that needed darning when he noticed movement at the edge of the road. A small figure was running through the forest, carrying a satchel. Cougar slipped out of his nest and down the ladder, grabbing the attention of the sentries sitting behind the hedge.
"Runner. Don't recognize them." Cougar whispered.
"I'll have a look." one of the sentries, Catherine, said.
Cougar still did not know all of the runners on sight, and the settlement had learned in the past that satchels could be stolen by those looking for a way in. Cougar often found himself thankful that explosives had no place in Purgatory, he'd seen enough of that when he was alive.
Catherine climbed in to the nest and a few seconds later called out, "It's Aalem!"
The other sentry, a taciturn man named Bo with a death mark under his jaw, grunted. "Always fuckin' weird when we get that guy."
"Anything I should know?" Cougar asked.
"He's been here 7 years, and he died when he was 10. Always weird to get kids rolling around this place."
Cougar shivered, knowing how Bo felt. It had been bad enough encountering child soldiers when he was alive. Meeting them in the afterlife always brought a faint sense of horror and disappointment.
Catherine slid down the ladder and ran out to meet Aalem, hugging the child tightly. Cougar moved closer, patiently waiting to be introduced so that he would recognize Aalem in future. When Catherine and Aalem separated, however, Cougar found himself staring at a face from his nightmares. The memory came to him unbidden: a raid on a warlord's compound, child soldiers attacking his team, and a soot-stained and bloody child snarling as he pointed a gun at Roque shortly before Cougar put a bullet between his eyes, right where Aalem's death mark was.
Aalem looked at Cougar curiously until he focused on Cougar's hat. Watching the child's face morph from curiosity to recognition to shock was more than Cougar could take, so he turned and walked away, waiting until he had turned the corner on a house before running all the way to Hubert's home. Cougar locked his door and crawled in to the cramped space under his bed, positioning himself with his back to the wall so he could keep watch over the entire floor.
Cougar's heart thundered in his chest as he was choked with horror and grief. He lay under his bed, struggling to keep his emotions from bubbling over, panting and blinking back tears. Once the first sob escaped, he curled in on himself, using his shirt sleeve to muffle the noise as much as possible.
Cougar woke to the sound of his window screen clattering to the ground. As he blinked tired, scratchy eyes he saw a pair of feet touch down on the floor of his room - someone crawling in through his window. A sigh, followed by vaguely familiar hands grabbing the screen and, presumably, fixing it back in place. The feet padded over to Cougar's door and unlatched the lock, before turning around and pausing in front of the bed.
"If you come out now I won't tell anyone you can fit under there." Hubert said dryly.
Cougar dragged himself out from under the bed, face burning with shame as he remembered the previous day. He sat on the floor next to his bed with his back against the wall. Hubert sat down next to him and bumped their shoulders together.
"Aalem showed up yesterday afternoon and told me what happened." Hubert said, keeping his voice soft. "He wants to meet you before he goes back on the delivery circuit."
Cougar shook his head desperately, "I- no. I can't-"
"Cougar." Hubert said, cutting off Cougar's protests. "You can. It'll be better for the both of you to just meet and talk things out. You need to do this so you can get past this. The both of you can get some closure and move on."
Cougar closed his mouth with a click. He knew Hubert was right, but he could not bring himself to admit it.
"Aalem said you looked terrified when you saw him." Hubert whispered. "It's okay to be scared, Cougar. And it's okay to admit it. What's not okay is letting it stop you from coping."
Cougar sighed deeply and nodded.
"You've got 10 minutes to drink some water and pretty yourself up before Aalem gets here for brunch." Hubert said, heaving himself up off the floor.
Cougar sat there blinking at Hubert's retreating form before pulling himself up and getting to work. The Army may not have been the best for his mental health, but it had done wonders for his ability to make himself presentable in less than 10 minutes.
The table was set and Hubert was putting the finishing touches on the food when Aalem arrived, knocking on the open doorway of Hubert's home. Cougar froze for a moment before gesturing that the boy should come in. Aalem stepped in cautiously, keeping his eyes trained on Cougar until they were standing before each other. After an awkward pause, the boy squared his shoulders and held out a hand.
"My name is Aalem." the boy said.
"Cougar." he replied, shaking Aalem's hand.
"Your parents named you Cougar?" Aalem asked, looking delighted at the possibility.
"No," Cougar replied, smiling, "they named me Carlos. Many years ago I earned the nickname Cougar. At this point I have had the nickname for longer than I have had my birth name."
"Which do you want me to call you by?" Aalem asked.
Aalem nodded once before fidgeting nervously. Cougar tamped down on the urge to do the same while trying not to stare at the death mark in the middle of Aalem's face. The mark Cougar had put there.
"I'm sorry for trying to shoot your friend." Aalem blurted out.
"What?" Cougar asked, thrown.
"I remember what happened. How I died. I was trying to shoot your friend and you stopped me. I'm sorry for... making that necessary." Aalem said, looking down at his shoes.
"Aalem..." Cougar breathed, stunned. "The people who made it necessary were the ones who thought it was okay to use children as soldiers. None of it was your fault, you were doing what you had to. What you were taught to."
"Just as you were when you took out a threat to a member of your team." Aalem said, pinning Cougar with a look.
Cougar opened and closed his mouth several times, trying to find arguments to refute Aalem's statement, but nothing would come. If he had allowed any of his team to die simply because they were facing child soldiers, then Cougar would have been discharged before he had ever gotten in to Spec Ops.
"Back when I first got here," Hubert said, carrying a bowl full of a mix of potatoes, cheese, and sausage that was standard breakfast fare to the table, "there was this monk who said something pretty smart. He said that guilt was a sign of empathy, and that without empathy we would all be sociopaths. It's healthy to feel it, as long as you don't let it be in charge of your decisions."
"He sounds wise." Aalem said as they took their seats.
"He was. He ascended pretty much the day he hit the 15 year mark." Hubert said. "Used to wonder what he did to end up here in the first place."
"Cougar," Aalem said, covering his mouth while he chewed, "if you were a soldier, why did you not end up in the soldier's settlement?"
"I followed the direction Mercedes' dahlia pointed me in." Cougar said, frowning.
"When you reached the settlement you said you kept picturing four walls and a bed." Hubert pointed out. "Most of the people in the soldier's settlement were fresh from the field. They're still interested in fighting, waging war. Well, not necessarily interested, more that it's something they already know how to do. It makes sense for all of them to band together and work at protecting the civilians."
"It gives them something familiar to focus on." Cougar said, thinking of the sentry nest and medic duties.
Aalem hummed thoughtfully before changing the subject. As the meal progressed, Cougar found himself warming easily to the bright, endearing child. When their meal was finished, Aalem asked Cougar to accompany him on a short walk.
"There are a few people I think you would get along with." Aalem said when questioned.
Aalem led Cougar to one of the buildings used by the settlements' runners, where they could rest before heading out again. Cougar followed Aalem to one of the rooms and found six children of varying ages lounging on beds within.
"Everyone, this is Cougar. Cougar, this is Sebastian, Diego, Rachel, Qiam, Farshad, and Aviva." Aalem said. "Cougar was a soldier. He was sneaky and quiet."
The children turned to look at Cougar, contemplating him seriously for a moment before looking at each other for confirmation.
"How sneaky and quiet?" one of the girls asked.
"I was a Green Beret sniper." Cougar said.
The children turned as one to the girl who had asked. She nodded her head. "They're good at what they do." she said.
"Aviva was used for intelligence missions." Aalem explained. "And Rachel had very bad parents. The rest of us were soldiers."
Cougar nodded his head once in understanding.
"We're looking for someone to help us. Someone who has experience and physical strength that we don't." Aviva said.
"To do what?" Cougar asked, suspicious.
"In between runs we've been going out in small scouting parties. We can move fast and quiet if there's only one or two of us. It's help us keep an eye out for anyone looking to attack any of our allied settlements. But we're a small group and we don't have a lot of experience with this kind of stuff." Aviva explained.
"We're not looking to start fights. We're looking to give our community fair warning so we can stand up for ourselves." one of the other boys said.
"Scouting and patrols?" Cougar asked.
"And putting down a few traps." Rachel said. "There's no real wildlife in Purgatory, mostly just birds or small to medium sized farm animals. The only things we'd catch would be people trying to hunt us."
"What about new people wandering around trying to find a friendly settlement?" Cougar asked.
"Uh..." Rachel trailed off.
"Some of our ideas aren't as good as others. That's part of why we need someone to help us, someone who has experience with this kind of stuff." one of the older boys said.
Cougar looked around the room, meeting each of the children's eyes and seeing hope and conviction in them. He nodded to himself and sighed.
"We are going to need a map and paper." he said, holding back his amusement as the children scrambled to find supplies.
"Alright," Terrence said, keeping his voice soft to prevent it from carrying, "this is where we split. We'll rendezvous with you tonight by the lake before we switch with the next team."
Cougar, Aalem, and Aviva nodded in unison, trading small fist bumps or back pats with Terrence, Rachel, and Sebastian before they split off on the new route. It had taken a while to secure help from people in the soldier's settlement, which had been understandable given that the scouting plan hinged on using children to scout the areas between settlements, but once Terrence had spoken up in favor of it Cougar had found a lot more resources at his disposal. There were 21 children willing to participate in scouting, and only 7 adults trained to move silently enough for reconnaissance so far. There were more currently being trained, but a recent increase in raids against the settlements meant that the teams they already had needed to be sent more often if they were to have any warning at all. The current method called for 2 children to accompany every adult, with an understanding that if an altercation was inevitable the children were to run and bring a warning back while the adult engaged the interloper in guerilla warfare to buy time.
Cougar leads the way for his team, stepping through the underbrush silently with his bow drawn and at the ready. As he scanned the surrounding area, Cougar puzzled over the increase in raids over the past two months. There was something off about the pattern of the raids, it felt like their defenses were being tested rather than the random attacks others insisted they were. Cougar got the distinct impression that nobody wanted to admit that there were likely other settlements out there focused on Descending that could be unifying with the goal of causing as much trouble for those whose goal was Ascending. Knowing that willful blindness would not help anyone, Cougar and Terrence had upped the patrol schedule and randomized the routes everyone took to keep them from being too predictable. Aalem and Aviva had become very adept at shadowing Cougar quickly and silently, often affording them time to rig simple traps as they went. They tried to avoid using anything that would be lethal, not wanting to take down anyone genuinely searching for shelter.
After several hours of careful patrolling and checking traps, they made their way to the lake that served as a meeting point with Terrence's group. The two groups walked back to the crafter's settlement, going over details from their patrols. Terrence had spotted some broken branches and Sebastian had found a footprint, so they would check with the settlement for newcomers when they arrived.
The settlement was in full view when they realized something had slipped past them. Several houses were on fire, and people were screaming as they ran from armed men.
"Oh my god." Aviva whispered, horrified.
"We've prepared for this." Cougar reminded them. "Aviva, Aalem, Rachel, Sebastian: evacuate the settlement. You know where to lead them. Terrence, you're with me."
The children took off in one direction, moving around the edges of the settlement in order to locate people and sneak them out under the attackers' noses. Terrence and Cougar made a beeline for the nearest building that wasn't on fire. Terrence gave Cougar a boost to get on the roof so Cougar would have a good vantage point from which to provide cover fire for Terrence. Terrence passed Cougar his share of arrows before drawing his knives and heading to the town center to begin causing problems for the attackers. A quick count told Cougar he only had 32 arrows; he would have to make every shot count.
Cougar crept along the building's roof, jumping to different buildings in order to keep one eye on Terrence and one on the small glimpses he got of the children sneaking settlers out. Even with policing his arrows as much as possible his supply began dwindling soon enough. Cougar made a mental note to have the settlements start stocking arrow caches on the roofs of their buildings after this.
Cougar had used his last arrow when a scream sounded behind him. Cougar looked over the edge and saw Aalem on the ground, clutching his arm and trying to get away from an attacker. Cougar leapt from the building, ambushing the man and quickly killed him.
"How many settlers are left?" Cougar asked, helping Aalem to his feet.
"There was one, but the man you just killed took her out." Aalem said, his voice shaking.
Cougar reached in to a pocket for his roll of bandages and began binding the gash on Aalem's arm.
"As soon as I finish this I need you to go. Get out and get the other scouts out. Take them to the safe place we prepared. Stay there until either Terrence or I come for you. Understood?"
"Yes." Aalem said.
Cougar finished tying the bandage off and opened his mouth to speak when he heard a noise behind him. He pushed Aalem out of the way and turned to face the threat. The attacker swung a cudgel with enough force for it to whistle through the air, forcing Cougar to retreat in order to avoid it. Cougar tried to block the swings with his bow, but after a few strikes the thin wood of the bow snapped and Cougar was left scrambling to put distance between himself and his foe. A lucky strike on Cougar's knee had him stumbling long enough for his attacker to draw close and bring the cudgel down on Cougar's head, making his world go dark.
Cougar woke slowly. First came the awareness of a light breeze cooling his skin. Next was the sense of something digging in to his back and limbs, most probably roots and twigs based on the earthy green smell he was beginning to recognize. He wrinkled his nose and wondered why he was sleeping outside when he had a perfectly good bed in Hubert's house.
He opened his eyes and found himself staring at a familiar canopy. Looking around, Cougar found that he was once again naked in a private glade that had a small pool and a neat pile of clothes with Cougar's hat and a dahlia balanced on top. Cougar dressed himself quickly, taking a moment to inspect his appearance in the pool, looking for any sight of injury. The only difference Cougar could spot was a thin line of darkened skin peeking out from his hairline. A new death mark. Cougar donned his hat and left the glade, wandering the halls until he found Mercedes sitting at the table by herself.
"Carlos! Good work on protecting the people of the settlement! You're making some good karmic headway already." she said, smiling.
Cougar stood for a moment, staring at Mercedes because she was right. He had not noticed the gradual change while he was in the settlements, but looking at the sheer vibrancy of Mercedes' dress and the dahlias in her hair was proof enough that he was doing better. He thought he could even see a hint of blue in the sugar skull painting on her face.
Mercedes smiled proudly at him as he stood there. "Some of the settlers who died during the attack have already come and gone, heading back towards their homes. They died before you, so they get to wake up and go before you too. The people attacking the settlement are being made to wait an extra day before they can leave. We try to stagger these things a bit to keep too many awkward situations from happening." Mercedes' smile faded and she bit her lip before looking Cougar in the eye, "Speaking of awkward situations, there's one coming up for you very soon. I'm sorry that I don't have more time to prepare you for it."
"Prepare me for what?" Cougar asked, confused.
Mercedes nodded her head in the direction of the hallway that led to the terrace where Mercedes had explained Purgatory to Cougar. He could see the other Guide, Jamie, walking towards them, speaking softly. When the person Jamie was speaking to came in to view, Cougar's blood ran cold.
Jensen looked up when Cougar said his name, but his gaze soon drifted away listlessly. Cougar stared at Jensen's face, growing more and more disturbed by the lack of expression on his friend's face. Jensen looked pale, paler than usual, and his face bored and blank expression that seemed etched with quiet misery.
"Your friend Cougar is here, do you want to follow him to a settlement?" Jamie asked gently.
Jensen stood there for too long before shrugging. Jamie looked to Cougar for an answer.
"I'll take care of him." Cougar said, stepping forward and grabbing on to the sleeve of Jensen's pink Petunias shirt. "Come on."
Cougar led Jensen away from the psychopomps' building, marching them quickly in the direction he vaguely remembered the settlements being in. Once they were far enough away that no one could easily overhear them, Cougar rounded on Jensen.
“How...” Cougar started, trailing off as the sheer number of questions he needed to ask bubbled up inside him. How could he be here? How could Jensen be in Purgatory? What had happened? Had someone taken him out? Was Max not dead after all? Had Cougar missed something in New Jerusalem?
Jensen shuffled a bit and shrugged one shoulder listlessly. He hadn't brightened on seeing Cougar, he hadn't seemed phased by the Guides, he hadn't reacted to anything the way he should, the way Jensen would have. He just seemed to be going through the motions, letting his eyes drift through the surrounding area without actually taking anything in. His pink shirt was made Jensen look washed out and sickly, and Cougar began checking Jensen for death marks to see what had ended his friend's life so soon.
In the end, Cougar almost wished he hadn't seen it. On the inside of Jensen's left arm was a death-mark, a long dark red line from elbow to wrist that follows the vein there.
“Did you-” Cougar broke off, trying to control his temper. He grabbed Jensen's left arm and pulled it closer to see the mark. “You did this?”
Jensen shrugged again, not resisting, his other hand dangling uselessly at his side and his expression blank.
“Why?” Cougar hissed. “Why would you do that? You had so much to live for!”
“Didn't.” Jensen said, voice barely above a whisper.
“What?” Cougar asked, tilting his head in confusion.
“Didn't have anything to live for.” Jensen said.
“Jess and Beth?” Cougar asked, suddenly horrified that maybe Jensen's family hadn't been safe stateside.
“She didn't-” Jensen broke off to cough slightly. “She told me not to come around anymore. Too much stress. Didn't want me around Beth.” Jensen said, voice a dead monotone. He licked his lips and didn't seem to notice that tears were falling down his face. He wasn't even crying, Cougar realized, the tears were just leaking from him like he didn't have the energy to force them out or hold them back.
Cougar drew Jensen in close, hugging his best friend as he shook with grief and anger. Where had Pooch been? Why had Jess sent her brother away? How had Jensen gotten so bad without anyone noticing?
"You're coming with me, and I'm going to take care of you." Cougar promised, clinging to Jensen tight enough that it had to hurt, feeling all the while that he had never held Jensen tight enough.
Cougar woke early the day after he had arrived back at the settlement with Jensen. He sat up and peered at the sleeping figure in his bed. Jensen was too still, too thin, and too pale for Cougar's liking.
"He still sleeping?" Hubert asked quietly.
"Yes." Cougar said, voice hoarse.
"Hey now. Come here." Hubert said, drawing Cougar in to a hug. "I know it's tough right now, but remember what I said about sleep doing good work."
"I have never seen him like this. Not even anything close to this." Cougar whispered.
"We'll give him 5 days to come out of it. If he doesn't show any signs of improvement, there is a last resort option." Hubert said.
"What last resort option?" Cougar asked, confused.
"The thing that works the fastest to heal people in all of Purgatory isn't sleep. It's death." Hubert said. "We've only used it a few times, for people who were too traumatized to function even a little. It just gives them enough of a healing boost to be able to benefit from sleep at all. It's not something that gets done lightly."
Cougar looked at Jensen's sleeping form with a sense of horror curling in his gut.
"Maybe go for a walk, get a bit of air." Hubert suggested. "I'll keep an eye on him, and Aalem's due to come by soon."
Cougar turned and left the room, needing distance from what was left of his best friend. He stalked through a few alleyways, wanting to avoid as many people as possible, and nearly bowled over an older woman in his haste.
"Sorry, I didn't see you." he said, contrite.
"It's okay, I- Carlos?" his mother asked, incredulous.
Cougar backed away quickly, but Maria grabbed on to his wrist.
"I'm sorry." she said. "I know it's not enough and I don't expect you to want to talk to me, but I need to say this to you. You deserved better. All of my children did, but you especially, Carlos. You deserved better than the controlling, manipulative parents your father and I became."
Cougar stood there blinking in shock for a moment before shaking his head. "Do I want to know where my father is?"
"Still alive last I heard, the bastard." Maria said. "Hopefully in prison."
"Prison?" Cougar asked, confused.
"He's the reason I'm in Purgatory. The least he deserves is to be in prison." Maria said.
"I- You- He what?!" Cougar said, aghast.
"You father murdered me." Maria said as gently as she was able.
Cougar stood there gaping, trying and failing to process what his mother had said.
"Would you like some tea?" Maria asked.
"What?" Cougar asked, confused.
"You seem stressed, I think a cup of tea might help." Maria offered.
"Fuck it. Why not?" Cougar choked out, throwing his hands in the air.
Once inside his mother's home, Cougar was surprised to find that she had become a good listener. She allowed Cougar to talk about whatever crossed his mind, making appropriate noises without interrupting until Cougar slumped back in his chair, exhausted. She sipped her tea and let silence reign for a moment as she collected her thoughts.
"You've certainly had a very trying time. I'm sorry for the part I played in it. No one should have to go through as much as you have." she said.
My last thoughts before dying were that I was finally going to get peace." Cougar admitted. "I wanted it. I wasn't even sure if I believed in any kind of afterlife anymore, I just wanted peace."
"And instead you got dropped in to a plane of existence where you keep running in to dead people and getting in to fights." Maria said.
"I was handling it, though." Cougar said quietly.
"Till Jensen." Maria pointed out.
"Till Jensen." Cougar agreed.
"When you died, you simply stopped fighting to live. From what you've said, Jensen actively took himself out. It's likely he's worse off than you were when you got here. So think back to how many days it took before you started to feel like a person, and double it to figure out where Jensen is in his own journey." Maria said. "It will take time, but he will get better. What he needs most right now is time, patience, and support."
Cougar smiled sadly at her, "Lucky for me I have plenty of time on hand."
It took 3 days for Jensen to wake up, and another two for him to be willing to leave Cougar's room. Jensen slowly came out of his shell around Cougar, but often shut down near others. He seemed to cope best if Cougar was touching him, whether it was shoulders brushing as they sat side by side, or if Cougar held Jensen's hand to calm him down and draw him out. It had taken nearly a month for him to become stable enough for Cougar to feel safe going on an overnight trip to another settlement to confer with Terrence about another series of raids.
Cougar had been expecting to hear about a few attacks, survey the area, and offer suggestions to bolster the settlement's defenses. He had not expected to be ambushed by a small raiding party led by Roque. When he realized he was surrounded, Cougar shot an arrow back in to the middle of the settlement, warning people of the imminent danger. It earned him a slit throat from a man he had considered a friend for many years.
Cougar woke up in the glade. Again. This time with a thin death mark stretching across his throat.
"If you wanted to say 'hi' you could have just come and found me." Mercedes teased when Cougar walked by her.
Cougar snorted and shook his head, "Not walking all that way twice." he joked.
"Before you head out, I figure you should know that people are talking about you and Jensen." Mercedes said. "This is the ninth time you two have managed to find each other consecutively both in life and death."
"Really?" Cougar asked.
"Yup." she said, popping the 'p'. "You guys have been friends for longer than either of you remember. It's kind of nice. Of course, it also gets people talking."
"About what?" Cougar asked.
"About maybe helping you two be besties for eternity. There a few Guides looking to train replacements. They're considering you and Jensen as candidates." Mercedes said. "They're getting a little concerned that you two will never break the cycle of reincarnation. The betting pool reflects this. The odds are pretty evenly split between you guys reincarnating or becoming Guides, with a small percentage of people betting that you two will find a tear and slip through."
"Tear?" Cougar asked.
"Actual life and afterlife are pretty close, metaphysically speaking. Sometimes the planes of existence rub against each other wrong and tear. The tear repairs itself in just a few minutes, but if you're lucky enough to find one you can sneak back in to the world of the living. There's about a 1 in 84,000,000,000 chance of finding a tear though." Mercedes explained.
Cougar opened his mouth to reply, but was cut off by someone shouting "MOTHERFUCKER!" in the hallway. Before he could react, Jensen had enveloped Cougar in a bone-crushing hug. Jensen clung to Cougar, trembling faintly before trying to pat Cougar down to check for injuries without releasing him. When Jensen eventually did stop hugging Cougar for a moment, he looked Cougar up and down before spotting the new death mark.
"Fuck, don't tell me they got you too, Cougar." he breathed.
"Who?" Cougar managed to ask, still stunned at how present and lively Jensen was at that moment.
"Fuckin' Fahd showed up, leading a raiding band. We took down most of them, but I bled out after one of them got me with a shiv." Jensen said.
"Roque was leading a group near the chef's settlement." Cougar said.
"Those raiding bands are coordinating, they have to be." Jensen said.
"They are. Or were. Which is why we hit the reset button last night." Mercedes said. "You're gonna need your tokens to find your way home, boys."
"We better start bookin' it if we want to get back." Jensen said, heading for the exit.
As they were leaving, Jamie came around the corner, leading a new soul to the terrace.
"It's not so bad, really. Think of it a bit like summer school for your soul." Jamie said.
"EXCUSE ME?!" Jensen exclaimed. "SUMMER SCHOOL?! I HAVE NEVER BEEN TO SUMMER SCHOOL IN MY LIFE!"
"You still haven't, you're dead." Cougar deadpanned.
"Huh..." Jake said pensively. He mulled over the thought for a moment before smiling at the rather startled man Jamie was escorting. "My bad, forgot to factor in the 'after' part of 'afterlife. Welcome to purgatory!" he said before turning around and walking out, causing Mercedes to start laughing.
As Cougar followed Jensen out, he couldn't help but feel almost giddy at having Jensen back with him.
Finding their settlement had proved simple enough, it was locating the other settlements that had become complicated. Thousands of people had been flung far and wide in the name of keeping them all safe, and the list of people missing was worryingly long. Anyone who had not been inside the borders of one of the settlements had been left behind when the reset happened.
On the brighter side, Jensen threw himself in to the reconstruction efforts with nearly the same enthusiasm Cougar remembered. When they weren't working on rebuilding the settlements affected by the attack, they were training more settlers in self defense or scouting new emergency evacuation sites for people to go to the next time a settlement became overrun. It became common knowledge that where you found one, the other was not far, and this fact helped settle something in Cougar that he had not realized was out of place.
Late one night, laying away in the bedroom they shared in Hubert's house, Cougar asked a question that had been bothering him since the day Jake had arrived in Purgatory.
"Why did Jess turn you away?"
Jake froze for a moment before sighing and rolling over to face Cougar.
"Jess said it was too stressful, and she didn't want to put Beth through that." he said.
"Through not knowing if I was coming home. Through wondering if every time I walked out the door would be the last time she saw me. I can see why Jess did it, and I can't really bring myself to disagree with her decision. Still hurt, though." Jake said, smiling sadly.
"But Max was gone. Why would she-"
"What? Max wasn't gone. This happened about ten months before we got Max. The last leave we all went on, I went back to Jess and ended up spending my whole leave in a hotel room drowning my sorrows." Jensen said.
"You never said anything." Cougar growled.
"Jess gave me an ultimatum. Here and Beth, or the Losers. My family, or my family. I was going to lose no matter what I picked, so I picked the one that knew me best." Jake said, licking his lips. "I picked the one that had you in it, Cougs."
"Jake." Cougar breathed, his heart thudding in his chest.
"Look." Jake said, exhaling shakily. "I'm already dead. There's not a whole lot you can do to me at this point, but I'm still nervous. Just... if you need to punch me for this, don't hit my glasses. There's no eye doctor in Purgatory."
"Jake?" Cougar asked, concerned.
Jake leaned forward in the dark and pressed his lips to Cougar's. Cougar froze before tentatively reaching up and cupping Jake's face with his hands. Jake relaxed in to the kiss, letting it deepen naturally as they wrapped themselves around each other. When the kiss ended, they took a moment to breathe before Jake reached out and touched Cougar's face with trembling fingers. It took a moment for Cougar to realize Jake was tracing Cougar's smile.
Cougar dove in for another kiss before Jake could become smug.
Hubert was very supportive of their new relationship. Possibly too supportive. When Cougar showed Jake the jar of oil with a bow on it and a note telling them Hubert was leaving the house to them for a few days, Jake just laughed.
The oil went in to their night stand.
The bow ended up some place arousing, but unsanitary.
Cougar and Jake had established a fairly dependable pattern. Dinner with Cougar's mother once or twice a week, depending on what settlements they were in. Days filled with scouting and defense lessons and preparations. Evenings filled with trying to figure out where their missing settlers had gone.
Terrence was put in charge of the soldier's settlement after the old leader Ascended. Raashmi took him under her wing to show him how to keep an entire settlement running smoothly. Cougar and Jake took over the administration of the patrols, altering the training program content to include first aid.
Hubert Ascended late one night after dinner with the scout children and Maria. He had been feeling downright jolly for several days beforehand, and many of his conversations were tinged with a sense of peace that put others at ease.
Raashmi declared that Hubert's house should go to Cougar and Jake. They immediately turned around and converted Hubert's room in to a bunk room for the scouting children.
In a complete and total coincidence, they also looked in to soundproofing their bedroom.
Cougar frowned at the tracks he was seeing. Someone had begun kidnapping the basic runners that delivered messages between settlements. The satchels were left behind, meaning it was the runners themselves that someone was after. For several days Cougar and Jake had been following the trail Aalem had left as he was dragged along, and it looked as though they might actually get an answer this time. They were getting close to what looked like an abandoned settlement, and every instinct Cougar had was screaming that it was a trap.
"Definitely a trap." Jake whispered.
"Spring it?" Cougar asked.
"Might as well. Maybe we'll see who set it."
The approached the settlement cautiously, moving as quietly as they could. In one of the houses, Aalem was tied to a chair in the middle of several traps.
"So very predictable." said a voice Cougar could have lived without hearing.
"Fahd." Jake spat. "Using kids as bait, now? Guess Aisha's daddy issues were twistier than I thought."
Cougar felt the arrow as it pierced his thigh, nicking his femur along the way. He cried out and dropped to the ground, his leg no longer supporting his weight. Turning, he saw Aisha lining up another shot, only for Jake to hit her in the face with a broken chair.
Fahd jumped Jake from behind, and it was only Cougar's warning the kept Jake from being stabbed while his back was turned. Cougar brought up his bow and sank an arrow in to Fahd's knee, giving Jake the upper hand long enough to dislocate both of Fahd's shoulders. Aisha was able to get past Jake's defenses long enough to stab him in the gut before her own shoulders were dislocated.
"I say," Jake began, pale and sweating, "we leave them like this instead of killing them. Because dislocations don't heal overnight the way everything else does. You need to reposition the joints first to get them to heal. So we tie them up, and then figure out how to free our little buddy here."
Cougar nodded in agreement, and they set to work using Aisha and Fahd's own clothes to trap them in place and gag them. Once that was done, Jake was looking considerably weaker, not that Cougar felt very well himself.
"I got an idea for that trap." Jake said, his words slurring slightly. "If I do it right, I can take Aalem's place in the trap. Then you and him can get to safety."
Cougar looked at Jake, looked at the blood coming from his stomach wound, and bit back his protests knowing Jake was breathing on borrowed time as it was.
"Fine." he said, hoarsely.
Jake reached for Cougar and brought him close, brushing a sweet kiss against his lips.
"Close your eyes, Cougar." Jake whispered. "It's bad enough that you'll see the aftermath. Close your eyes."
Cougar closed his eyes and listened as Jake took a few steps forward, stumbling once. There were a few seconds of silence before something heavy went flying, several cords whipped through the air, and several heavy, wet things hit the walls. Aalem started sobbing, so Cougar opened his eyes.
Jake was in pieces, torn in two and flung across the room. Aalem was still tied to the chair, so Cougar made his way over and untied the boy. Together they shuffled out of the settlement and towards home.
Nearly an hour in to the journey, Cougar collapsed. Aalem started shaking Cougar, but Cougar waved the boy off.
"Get home, Aalem. Go. You'll see us again in a few days." Cougar said, brushing the boy's hair from his face.
"I had better." Aalem said, voice thick with tears.
As soon as Aalem was a safe distance away, Cougar removed the arrow from his leg and let himself bleed out.
The bright, vibrant greens of the glade were nearly visible through Cougar's closed eyelids. He pulled on his clothes, stretched leisurely and sipped from the small pool before leaving his chamber. He followed the sound of Jake's voice to where Mercedes and Jamie were.
"I'm just saying I think there's more going on in here than just one trap baited to catch us for Fahd. We're missing settlers, large numbers of them, we haven't had new people coming in to the settlements to replace the ones who've Ascended, and our runners keep disappearing. Cougs thinks they're being taken either as hostages or for slavery, and I'm inclined to agree with him."
"We agree with that assessment." Mercedes said.
"Any chance we could get some backup tracking the settlers down then?" Jake asked.
"Unfortunately we've been asked not to intervene." Mercedes said.
"Why?" Jake demanded.
"Because the higher ups want you and Cougar as Guides and they've chosen this as your test. Rescue the settlers and you two will have jobs waiting for you." Jamie said.
Jake looked over at Cougar, incredulity written across his face. Cougar shrugged.
"Alright. Weirdest job interview I've ever had, but whatever. Let's go show these fools how Losers get shit done." Jake said, earning matching grins from Jamie and Mercedes.
21 hours later, Cougar and Jake had found a settlement that was teeming with activity. They saw people from their own settlements shackled together in production lines. It was, honestly, very easy to take down the guards and free their fellow settlers, the trick was to cause a big enough diversion between the two of them that the settlers could get away with few casualties.
Jake found a way to knock over a few houses while Cougar went around scavenging arrows and setting things on fire. The settlers they had rescued fled out the back while Jake and Cougar drew out the hostile inhabitants. They knew they had done a good job when Roque and Wade showed up to help give chase, which was where their plan started to fall apart.
Jake and Cougar did their best to dodge and evade everything that was thrown at them, and managed to hide long enough to shimmy up a cliff face and take shelter in a space between two large boulders, but they were sitting ducks if they got spotted. Jake looked around for a different path, but Cougar was already considering jumping and hoping they were high up enough that the fall would kill them, not just incapacitate them. He did not want to be caught alive by these people.
"Hey, Cougs?" Jake said, sounding hopeful. "You trust me, right?"
"Of course." Cougar said, frowning.
"I'm gonna need you to take my hand and jump." Jake said, holding out one hand as he peered over the edge.
Cougar grabbed Jake's hand and stood with him, ready to fling himself in to the void with his best friend and lover. Jake looked over at Cougar and grinned, his eyes dancing with mischief.
"Ready?" Jake asked.
Cougar nodded, and leapt. As they're falling, Cougar sees a slight shimmer and ripple in the air they're headed for, and when they hit it the world explodes with vertigo and a kaleidoscope of colors.
Pooch woke early, his body still accustomed to keeping a military schedule. He rolled over in bed and smiled sadly when he saw the picture of Jolene and their kids. In the photo James, or Pup as he liked to be called, was holding a swaddled Ginevra and looking like he was excited about being the best big brother ever while Jolene beamed at them. Pooch knew it would only be a few days before he could see them again, but he missed them already.
The trip had been Jolene's idea. Closure, she'd said, something to kick start the healing process. It had been bad enough losing Cougar the way they did, but Jensen? Pooch hadn't even known anything was wrong. Pooch laid awake at night wondering if there was something he could have done, some way of reaching out to Jensen that would have kept him from doing what he did.
Pooch remembered getting the call to go identify Jensen's body. Jensen had always been about life and motion and energy, so much so that seeing his friend lifeless and cold on a slab in the morgue hit Pooch harder than some of the stuff he'd seen in the field. Worse yet was how prepared Jensen had been, how much thought and effort he had put in to making sure things were taken care of. All the paperwork needed for Pooch to collect Jensen's body and take charge of his belongings had been hidden in a compartment of Jensen's desk right where Pooch would find them. Inside the folders had been a note asking Pooch not to tell Jess until he was buried.
The conversation with Jess had been awful. Pooch had been shocked to learn that she hadn't even known that they'd gotten Max, or that Cougar was dead and Jensen had survived. Pooch had needed to take a walk around the block when he learned that Jess had given Jensen an ultimatum, and Jensen had chosen the Losers. With the team demolished, Jensen had had nothing to go back to, and nothing to keep going for.
Pooch shook his head, trying to clear it of the melancholy thoughts that had been plaguing him. He got out of bed and shuffled around, grabbing his bathrobe and a cup of shitty hotel room coffee to drink as he sat out on the balcony. The morning breeze was keeping things cool before the sun had really risen.
Pooch looked around at the ocean, the beaches and surf shops of Antigua. He thought about how Jensen would have loved to try surfing, how Cougar would have let Jensen try to figure it out on his own by demonstrating his own technique. Pooch closed his eyes against the grief and prayed that wherever they were they had found each other and were at peace.
Pooch's prayer was interrupted by two very large, very loud splashes coming from the beach. Cursing early morning surfers, Pooch opened his eyes to see who the hell had made the noise so he could glare at them. Pooch shielded his eyes with one hand as he squinting, feeling a pang when he saw an obnoxiously pink shirt on one of the two idiots. He glanced at the other one and did a double take. Was that Cougar's goddamned hat?
Pooch stood up on his balcony and stared at the people swimming back to shore. The guy in the pink shirt was able to stand up in the water first. Pooch ran in to his hotel room and pulled out Cougar's spare scope, rushing back to the balcony and sighting the people on the beach.
"I don't fucking believe it." Pooch swore.
He dropped the scope and vaulted his balcony, thankful he was only on the first floor. Pooch ran towards the beach, his bathrobe flapping in the wind behind him. Jensen and Cougar looked up as he got close, and they opened their arms for him before he tackled them back in to the surf.